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Plan for Chaos by John Wyndham
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Plan for Chaos

by John Wyndham

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Here is a curiosity: a novel by the author of The Day of the Triffids, written around the same time (1948 to 1951) but abandoned, only to see the light of day around sixty years later when it's finally published. It's not difficult to see why Wyndham gave up on it -- its compound of different genres, disparate themes and mangled speech patterns make for awkward reading -- and yet it's an interesting experiment which, given radical tweaking, could have been made to work.

The basic set-up is that supporters of the Nazi cause have survived into the 1970s, somewhere in South America we deduce, where they have built a secret underground complex. Here their clandestine wartime experiments for perpetuating a master race have resulted in the successful breeding of human clones; all that is required is to fool the superpowers into annihilating each other with atomic bombs -- the chaos of the novel's title -- after which the new Germans will re-populate the earth. Their technicians have also developed flying saucer technology and cloaking devices, causing international consternation and confusion in a world unaware of their existence.

Into this massive conspiracy stumbles Johnny Farthing, an American magazine photographer with a mixed British and Swedish background. He discovers that a number of women who've died in suspicious circumstances all appear to have similar facial features and, most worryingly of all, they all resemble his cousin Freda, who is also his fiancée. (The cover of the Penguin edition alludes to this coincidence with its illustration of a blonde seen full-face, her profile shown twice over in her hair-do's contours rather like the reverse of a Rubin Vase optical illusion.) As he investigates further he finds that he too is being mistaken for somebody else; and then Freda herself disappears. So far this reads like a plot for a detective thriller, but at the point when Johnny himself is taken prisoner Plan for Chaos enters science fiction territory.

There are many ideas milling around, a lot of them typical of the postwar period but also with some relevance now. Cloning of course was a feature of Huxley's Brave New World (1932), here adapted to Nazi ideologies and examined for some of its practical implications. As for UFOs, the fact that the Nazis had really been developing new aircraft technology, combined with the worldwide explosion of 'sightings' of saucer-shaped flying objects after Kenneth Arnold reported his own observations in June 1947 -- the year before Wyndham began this novel -- soon generated postwar speculation that the two were somehow linked, speculation that continues even to this day.

It also mayn't be a coincidence that Wyndham began his dystopian novel about the planned resurgence of a rightwing tyranny in the same year in which that archetypal modern satire, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published. The description of the Big Brother party -- uninterested in the good of others but interested solely in power for its own sake -- applies equally to the group that Farthing encounters hidden in the South American jungle; but instead of Big Brother we encounter The Mother. As the narrator soon observes, she is a human equivalent -- with all that this implies -- of the hive's queen bee or the queen in an underground termite mound, surrounded and serviced by myriads of workers and soldiers.

The editors' note and the introduction by novelist Christopher Priest give the background to this novel's gestation and stillbirth, making clear the difficulties the author had, especially with tone -- the Englishman wrote it with the American market in mind, and tried unsuccessfully to jump through several hoops to get his hero's phraseology right. Too often the novel even takes on the guise of a polemical tract before shying away with a wisecrack from the narrator.

The anticlimactic ending (the last chapter is headed "Finality?" with a question mark) to me reinforces the ambivalent feelings he had about the novel's conclusion. Wyndham's chapter headings and epigraphs are mostly from Shakespeare -- perhaps a nod to Brave New World, which used Miranda's words in The Tempest for its title besides citing other Shakespeare plays -- but the way the plot fizzles out seems to suggest to me that this use of quotations was no substitute for a convincing structure. Still, as a portrait of mischief on a grand scale -- Hamlet's 'miching mallecho' -- it does its job well.

Plan for Chaos is clearly no masterpiece, flawed or otherwise, but just occasionally there are inklings of what it could have become, given time and a lot of redrafting. Sometimes the action pushes along at a fair lick, and one may imagine that its filmic qualities and possibilities could encourage some enlightened producer to adapt it for the screen, a process that would curtail its longeurs and maybe even turn its narrator into a halfway convincing protagonist. As it now stands though it's imperfect, however pregnant with possibilities. ( )
  ed.pendragon | Apr 20, 2016 |
I enjoyed this it is classic Wyndham paticularly toward the end. I would say don't read the introduction by Christopher Priest until afterwards as he gives away a bit to much. The remarks linking this to Day of the Triffids are just wrong the two books were written at the same time and that one got into print. ( )
  Davidmullen | Mar 23, 2013 |
Interesting- but only so so by comparison with his mightier works. Shades of brave new world in the cloning. the nazi empire theme continuing in the jungle was never really plausible enough - and too much time was spent with nothing happening. Not great to be honest. ( )
  harveybiggins | Aug 30, 2011 |
An odd book. Supposedly the prequel to "Day of the Tiffids" but that was hard for me to see.

Johnny Farthing, a magazine photographer, noticed that women who look just like his fiance show up dead all over town. Then, he starts getting recognized at places he has never been before. What is going on?

I really enjoyed the first part - suspenseful and went quickly. But the second part just dragged and dragged.

Dated, sure, it was written in the 1950s, but I don't think one of Wydham's best. ( )
  coolmama | Jul 13, 2010 |
(Plot spoiler) This is interesting as a companion novel to ‘The Day of the Triffids’, a novel hat struck me as being highly sexist with Bill continually looking after Josella. For a while I felt that in this novel Wyndham was reversing this, making women the dominant ones, but the fact that The Mother is a Nazi trying to recreate a victorious Germany makes women’s power appear to be dangerous, something confirmed later by Freda appearing to want to create a super-race too.

This was not a pleasurable book to read. While it contains characteristic elements of his other writing such as his ability to create provocative ideas, it is a book where these ideas are expounded at some length by different characters (reminding me that when you start a new paragraph in direct speech you keep opening the quotation marks) so that these ideas seem artificially injected into the text creating a hiatus. The main character is more someone who just keeps hanging around getting confused and the plot is drawn out and unconvincing. Wyndham was right to abandon his struggles to get this one published. ( )
  evening | Jul 3, 2010 |
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Lois looked up from the switchboard as I went by.
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